The Long Season by Jim Brosnan, (Penguin, 1983), 278 pages
Jim Bouton’s Ball Four is generally considered to be the first book that showed fans the real lives that ballplayers lead. In fact, Jim Brosnan’s book on his 1959 season with the St Louis Cardinals and Cincinnati Reds was first published ten years before Bouton’s more infamous text. Ball Four’s place in the history of baseball literature was assured by the controversy caused by his uninhibited revelations about teammates and opponents, but The Long Season shouldn’t be overlooked just because of its less sensationalist tone.
Jim Brosnan was, by his own admission, an “average professional baseball player”, who pitched for nine seasons in the Big Leagues between 1954 and 1963. If that short biography doesn’t generate much excitement, it’s worth noting that “average” sportsmen are often best placed to pass on their experiences to others. The stars of the game can find it all so easy that describing what they do is a frustrating exercise, just as the best players rarely seem to make the best managers or coaches. Brosnan was well aware of his limitations as a ballplayer and the matter-of-fact way in which he looked at his job makes him an endearing narrator. There is no self-aggrandisement or tales of heroics, just a humorous diary account of the frustrations and occasional moments of success that an average player experiences over the course of a “long season”.
Brosnan’s 1959 season begins in less than promising fashion as his hopes for a much improved contract from the Cardinals, “a reward, a pat-on-the-back that would pay all the old bills”, failed to come true. The $16,000 offer was a decent salary at the time, but far short of the deals similar types of players receive today in an era of arbitration and free agency. While the sums may have changed, the logistics of being a ballplayer in 1959 were largely the same as today. There’s the annual move to a Spring Training camp, long trips away from your family and the uncertainty and disruption caused by being traded during the season. Brosnan and his wife deal with these events with customary sardonic humour, accepting them as part and parcel of earning a living as a ballplayer.
Brosnan is always self-deprecating about his own performances, such as a one start just before he is traded by the Cardinals that lasts just seven batters. “How do you like that for a start?”, ponders Brosnan, whilst noting the “miserable fan” who informed everyone that his pitching display was “just like batting practice”. Being a reliever gives you ample time to mess around with your fellow pitchers in the sanctity of the bullpen and that’s clearly a part of the baseball-playing life that Brosnan enjoyed. When they weren’t creating bullpen rockets with chewing gum wrappers and matches, they were engaging in intellectual debate. Or something of the sort: “Bullpen conversations cover the gambit of male bull sessions. Sex, religion, politics, sex. Full circle. Occasionally, the game – or business – of baseball intrudes”, generally in the form of arguing over how to pitch to specific hitters. Here’s one typical exchange about pitching to Hank Aaron.
“Knock him down, first pitch”, said Pete.
“Curve him away”, said Willard.
“Jam him good, he’ll swing at the ball a foot inside, sometimes”, said Brooks.
“Change up on him once every trip”, I suggested.
“Boys, I think Pena just struck him out on a spitter”, said Deal.
“Good pitch”, we agreed.
The same sort of conversations are no doubt still as prevalent in Major League bullpens today. They could certainly be found in Ball Four ten years later, although this is one of the few areas of direct similarities between the two books. Brosnan does reveal how clubs deliberately altered their fields to suit their teams and gain a real ‘home field advantage’ and he even spills the beans on the deals opposing pitchers might strike to help each other with a good pitch to hit (a deal that is only followed through on if it won’t affect the outcome of the game. In the example given, the deal is overtaken and Brosnan gets struck out on curve balls – “it should be illegal to throw them to pitchers”). However, this is about as far as he goes in the ‘controversial revelations’ stakes.
Ball Four was deliberately written as a warts-and-all account of the Majors. Bouton set about revealing the ‘off-the-field’ antics enjoyed by many married/attached ballplayers with devilish glee, whilst revelling in making the likes of his Seattle Pilots manager Joe Schultz and pitching coach Sal Maglie (who crops up in the Long Season as well) look silly. Of course, this approach is exactly why Ball Four is such a belly-achingly funny read, but there is a slightly vindictive streak about it that makes the resulting hostility towards Bouton from within the game more understandable.
Brosnan notes in his preface to the 1974 edition of the Long Season that its publication did cause some “hostile criticism”, which seems strange in retrospect and even Brosnan admits to being “puzzled” by the reaction. He doesn’t stray into the private lives of other players or offer any character assassinations. Brosnan’s aim was simply “to write an entertaining book with as much humour as I could bring to my frustrating experiences as a Big League pitcher”. He succeeded in doing so and, although it doesn’t have the laugh-out-loud moments that Ball Four offers, it’s a spirited and fun insight into the life of a 1959 Major Leaguer.
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